The Supreme Court and Tribal Gaming

California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians

Ralph A. Rossum

When the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians—a small tribe of only 25 members—first opened a high-stakes bingo parlor, the operation was shut down by the State of California as a violation of its gambling laws. It took a Supreme Court decision to overturn the state's action, confirm the autonomy of tribes, and pave the way for other tribes to operate gaming centers throughout America.

Ralph Rossum explores the origins, arguments, and impact of California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, the 1987 Supreme Court decision that reasserted the unique federally supported sovereignty of Indian nations, effectively barring individual states from interfering with that sovereignty and opening the door for the explosive growth of Indian casinos over the next two decades.

“A meticulously researched account of how the Cabazon and Morongo Tribes of Missions Indians won the right to operate high-stakes bingo rooms in California. Along the way, Rossum explores the roots of federal Indian law and native sovereignty, and tracks the consequences of California v. Cabazon Band across Indian country. . . . Historians will find Rossum’s thorough legal analysis a fine complement to histories of assimilation and self-determination from scholars such as Francis Paul Prucha and Frederick E. Hoxie. . . . Rossum has crafted a compelling narrative of a critical moment in American Indian Law. Rossum ably places tribal gaming clearly within a legal historical context. In so doing, he clarifies the complex relationships between gaming, tribal sovereignty, and state regulatory power. While many recent works explore tribal gaming, Rossums study stands out for its clear examination of historical context and judicial precedence within a single legal case. For scholars who seek to understand this increasingly important issue, The Supreme Court and Tribal Gaming will be required reading for years to come.

—Southern California Quarterly

“Rossum has written a useful and informative book. His account of Congress on again off again approach to tribal independence will inform readers with a general interest in American Indian history. His description of the Marshall trilogy and subsequent case law is sufficiently detailed to be of interest to lawyers without prior exposure to federal Indian law. . . . [A] well written and thoroughly researched book that will appeal to a diverse audience. Perhaps in a future effort Rossum will let us know what he thinks about the long term viability of sovereign tribes in a global society and economy, but for this effort he should be commended for providing a clear and interesting explanation of how we got to where we are.

—Library of Law and Liberty
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Rossum has crafted an evenhanded overview of the case itself-its origins, how it was argued at every level of the judicial system, and the decision's impact-as he brings to life the essential debates pitting Indian rights against the regulatory powers of the states. He also provides historical grounding for the case through a cogent analysis of previous Supreme Court decisions and legislative efforts from the late colonial period to the present, tracking the troubled course of Indian law through a terrain of abrogated treaties, unenforced court decisions, confused statutes, and harsh administrative rulings.

In its decision, the Court held that states are barred from interfering with tribal gaming enterprises catering primarily to non-Indian participants and operating in Indian country. As a result of that ruling—and of Congress's subsequent passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act—tribal gaming has become a multibillion dollar business encompassing 425 casinos operated by 238 tribes in 29 states. Such enormous growth has funded a renaissance of reservation self-governance and culture, once written off as permanently impoverished.

As Rossum shows, Cabazon also brings together in one case a debate over the meaning of tribal sovereignty, the relationship of tribes to the federal government and the states, and the appropriateness of having distinctive canons of construction for federal Indian law. His concise and insightful study makes clear the significance of this landmark case as it attests to the sovereignty of both Native Americans and the law.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series